After 10 weeks of pinballing through political and domestic fiascos largely of his own making, President Trump last week faced the kinds of wrenching external challenges no White House occupant can avoid for long.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said emotionally Thursday night after he ordered a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield in response to a poison gas bomb that killed dozens of civilians, including children, and left dozens more writhing in pain.
This was the week a reality-TV presidency faced cold reality.
The fast-moving Syrian crisis combined with escalating U.S. concerns about North Korea’s ballistic missile tests and nuclear capability, even as Trump held back-to-back summits with three visiting foreign leaders, including China’s president.
Those urgent demands consumed much of Trump’s attention while other White House problems continued to simmer.
A new push to repeal and replace Obamacare was on life support in Congress, the scandal over Russian meddling in the election claimed another GOP scalp, and his White House again descended into a cacophony of West Wing intrigue and infighting.
But Trump notched a historic win — arguably his first since the election — with the Senate confirmation of conservative jurist Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, ensuring that whatever else happens, a Trump legacy is now ensured.
Trump vowed in his scorched-earth campaign last year to “drain the swamp” of the forces that run Washington. But in his most consequential week in office so far, Trump relied on familiar pillars of the establishment: the generals who now run his national security team, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose political cunning engineered the Gorsuch confirmation.
“We’re just in the first quarter of the year,” he said. “There’s much left to be done.”
And while Trump ran on anti-globalist threats aimed at China, he relied on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., one of the world’s largest energy conglomerates — to take a key role at his overnight summit in Florida with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump has long boasted of his fierce negotiating skills and how they would help him as president. While no mishaps marred his talks with Xi, he also made no apparent breakthroughs on trade or North Korea, the White House priorities.
“So far I have gotten nothing,” Trump joked to reporters at one point. “Absolutely nothing.”
The evolution of Trump’s national security team underscores the rapid change in the spheres of influence that surround Trump.
“A year ago if you asked me who are the three most important people in national security, I would have said they’re Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions and Rudy Giuliani,” said Jim Carafano, a Heritage Foundation analyst who advised the Trump campaign and transition teams.
Flynn was ousted as national security advisor in February for misleading the White House about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Sessions, the attorney general, had to recuse himself from the Justice Department inquiry into Russian meddling for failing to acknowledge his meetings with the same ambassador. Giuliani, former mayor of New York, fell out of favor and was not chosen for a top job.
“So the core of his national security [team] has shifted completely to three people he didn’t even know a year ago,” Carafano said, referring to Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.
Adding to the upheaval, the White House last week removed Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and fellow disrupter, from membership in the National Security Council, and reinserted the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Whether Bannon was demoted is disputed but there’s no doubt about the impact: An unconventional White House was reverting to a more familiar hierarchy and norm, at least for matters of war and peace.
That much was clear in Trump’s decision to launch 60 cruise missiles at an airfield in Syria, the first deliberate U.S. attack on a Syrian facility, in response to the chemical weapons attack on April 4. The Pentagon said 59 Tomahawks hit their intended targets and one fell in the Mediterranean.
The salvo of missiles would fly that night, in the most significant military action of his young presidency, and he seemed alternately at ease, defensive and boastful.
Trump acknowledged his staff had been “shaken up,” a rare nod to the White House turmoil. Then he turned to his characteristic hyperbole.
“We’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of presidents,” he said, although it’s only been 11 weeks and historians might challenge that assessment given that he’s gotten no legislation through Congress and federal courts have blocked several major executive orders.
He cited achievements — some symbolic or initiated before his election — in bringing jobs and renegotiating military contracts.
“We’ve had a tremendous success,” he said. “And we’ve just begun. And we’re going to have a very interesting couple of days.”
Yet the suffering in Syria had clearly left him shaken.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” he said, without tipping his hand to the attack he had ordered.
During the campaign, Trump railed at the Obama and Bush administrations for their foreign interventions and nation-building efforts. He, in contrast, saw the world through the isolationist lens of “America First,” keeping the military in reserve only for emergencies.
But it was never clear if his ideology was fixed or evolving. The answer came at a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday when Trump suddenly touted his flexibility on foreign affairs.
“I do change and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility,” he said. “And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me.”
The abrupt shift doesn’t surprise those who have studied the White House.
“Presidents come into office and the reality of the Oval Office hits and they make decisions based on being the president of the United States, not a candidate for the presidency of the United States,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a Marine reservist who served under McMaster. “It happens to every single president.”
The airstrikes in Syria may complicate national security challenges with Russia, Iran and the Middle East. But skeptics, even within Trump’s party, say they feel more confident in his ability to address foreign policy crises after last week.
Still, three weeks from his first 100 days in office, Trump faces other major hurdles.
Congress must vote on a spending package by month’s end to keep the government running, a vote that is not assured.
As lawmakers head out on a two-week recess, many expect to face constituents angry that the GOP-led Congress failed to deliver a new healthcare bill.
And congressional and FBI investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and potential connections to Trump’s campaign team won’t be dismissed easily.
The murky case claimed a new victim last week when the head of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), recused himself from a Russia probe because he was under a House ethics investigation for allegedly disclosing classified information that the White House had given him.
Trump’s supporters and foes alike know a new self-inflicted controversy is only a tweet away.
“I would love to see the tweeting stop, but I would also like to see pigs fly,” McCain said. “I just think it’s in his DNA. But perhaps there could be more restraint. I would hope that would happen. He now has an opportunity to reboot with the American people.”
Staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.